Why Every Team Should Apply the Constraint Theory of Offense

What kind of offense should you (or do you) run? A typical responses sounds something like: “I run a system with bubble screens, play action passes, screens, and draws.” This is a nonsensical answer. That’s not an offense; it’s a collection of plays. An offense consists of what are your base runs, base dropback passes, base options, or whatever else are your base, core plays. The other plays I mentioned are not your offense, they are constraints on the defense, or “constraint plays.”

The idea is that you have certain plays that always work on the whiteboard against the defense you hope to see — the pass play that always works against Cover 3, the run play that works against the 4-3 under with out the linebackers cheating inside. Yes, it is what works on paper. But we don’t live in a perfect world: the “constraint” plays are designed to make sure you live in one that is as close as possible to the world you want, the world on the whiteboard.

Constraint plays thus work on defenders who cheat. For example, the safety might get tired of watching you break big runs up the middle, so he begins to cheat up. Now you call play-action and make him pay for his impatience. The outside linebackers cheat in for the same reason; to stop the run. Now you throw the bubble screen, run the bootleg passes to the flat, and make them pay for their impatience. Now the defensive ends begin rushing hard upfield; you trap, draw, and screen them to make them pay for getting out of position. If that defensive end played honest your tackle could block him; if he flies upfield he cannot. Constraint plays make them get back to basics. Once they get back to playing honest football, you go back to the whiteboard and beat them with your bread and butter.

In a given game your offense might look like it is all “constraint” plays: all gimmicks, screens, traps, draws, fakes and the like. Maybe so, if that’s what the defense deserves. But you can’t lose sight of the structure of your offense. Just because the bubbles, the flares, the fakes, and other gimmicks are your best offense for a couple of weeks doesn’t mean that it will be there. Indeed, the best defense against that kind of stuff is simply a sound one. Thus great offenses must be structure around sound, time tested core ideas, but have the flexibility to go to the “constraint plays” whenever the opportunity exists. Too often, the constraint plays are alternatively given too much and not enough weight. But they nevertheless are what make an offense go.

If you’re a dropback pass team — think of the Airraid guys — you need constraint plays that counteract defenses that cheat for the passes. If you’re a great run team, you need constraints that attack safeties and linebackers who all cheat by formation and post-snap effort to stop your run game. You must have the counters, the screens, the bootlegs, and the quick passes, which work best when the defense gives you the structure. All this comports well with a game theory approach to football. Indeed, these constraint plays are most important against the best teams because those teams put the biggest premium on taking away what you hang your hat on. (But be wary of constraint plays against very talented teams — they may be stuffing your core offense not because they are cheating, but instead because they are better than you; the constraint plays then play into their hands.)

The upshot is that a good offense must: (a) find those one or two things on which it will hang its hat on to beat any “honest” defense — think of core pass plays, options, and so on, but also (b) get good at all those little “constraint” plays which keep the defense playing honest. You won’t win any championships simply throwing the bubble screen, but the bubble will help keep you from losing games when the defense wants to crush your run game. Same goes for draws and screens if you’re a passing team. You find ways to do what you want and put your players in position to win and score.

Designing an offense is all about structure. Constraint plays, like the bubble, work when the defense gives you the play by their structure; same for play-action passes over the top. When I say these are defensive cheats, I mean they aren’t the base, whiteboard defenses you expect, because defenses — both players and coaches — adjust to take away what you do well. But you want to go to your core stuff, so you build your offense off of that, and each constraint play forces the defense back in line, right where you want them. That’s the beauty of football: punch, counterpunch.

  • Mr.Murder

    So the term would apply to the main formation and grouping used? Multiple looks that consist of core plays(power I or lead, play action, or a run & shoot with stretch runs and bubble screens as you mention).

    Most teams today use two main formations for their main intentions.

    Spread(to run or pass from) and I formation(even pistol for gun teams) to run and play pass.

    So the core is what you would do under ideal situations or matchups(power or lead runs) ?

  • Anonymous

    “You won’t win any championships simply throwing the bubble screen”

    If only Ron Zook had read that before he took over as coach at Florida….

  • Slowmeaux

    Every time i read one of your articles, I want to punch Gary Crowton. 

  • C.J. Schexnayder

    excellent observation. reading this i was struck with how it is also a superb litmus test for game coverage. a good announcer who has done their homework will be aware of this dynamic and look for it during the game – and then transmit that to the viewers (whatever their other faults, herbstreit, danielson and blackledge are superb at this). bad announcers simply try to follow a prepared storyline and fit the events on the field to it. 

  • Anonymous

    Danielson is the best, hands down. Gary and the CBS crew will always take you back in time and show you what the coordinators are thinking as a game progresses and GD will even tell you want to watch for coming up as teams adjust.

  • Anonymous

    As a Red Raider fan and alum, this makes me smile. As hopefully we are on our way to beating some of those base defenses with great recruiting and more sound schemes.

    Really all it takes to validate this article is watch TTU vs OU in ’08, ’06. ’04. The talented sound OU defenses gave the AirRaid nothing, and caused havoc on the play calling / QB play / coaching. We simply refered it to the googley eyes popping out of everyones heads sheer panic that nothign was working

  • Anonymous

    OU and Mike Stoops do not run the death out of base schemes. He mixes it up defensively with the best of them. Mike Leach carved a niche out for himself and for Texas Tech. With all of that gone now, what’s left? Living in Lubbock? Tuberville isn’t’ going to recruit well there in the long run. Mike Leach was stubborn as a coach, but the way he built that program in Lubbock to beat/compete with the best of the Big12 was awesome. Tech should have accepted their fate as a program….an 8-4 type of program that every few years has a chance to be great. As with many other solid programs in the nation, though, it wasn’t good enough….they want national titles, recruiting titles, etc….but it’s not going to happen at those places or Texas Tech….TuberVille will either end up being crap or will move on to a better job….cycle repeats…..

  • Race Bannon

    I keep thinking about Crowton being hogtied in the press box during the Cotton Bowl while another assistant imitates Crowton – “run the ball again”!

  • Jason

    8-4 seasons and every few years a chance to be great should not be good enough, for any program! And while Tech should not be concerned with recruiting titles because recruiting is not everything, they should want national titles…

  • Anonymous

    Great points.   Consider, though, one alternative to constraint plays when the defense adjusts to your core plays is no-huddle audible system.    It doesn’t need to be complicated.  I use a system in conjunction with a spread formation that gives the QB the simple task of counting the run defenders.   If there are more than 5 in the box, he calls the pass play.  If 5 or fewer, he calls the run play.  Because of the spread formation (and wide line splits) there is only so much adjusting that the defense can do and not much room for disguising blitzes or stunts.   Going no huddle also puts a big strain on the ability of defensive coaches to adjust and sub players in or out.   The tempo can be adjusted depending on game situation and player stamina.

  • Will Rieffer

    Some have it and some don’t. Probably the best guy I can ever think of of just reading and opposing defense and co-ordinator was Dick Vermeil. With the Rams, Martz might have been the Grandmaster, but Dick was Kid Poker. One of the best ever on the feel of setting up a defense for offensive success.

  • davecisar

    Great as always. Force the D to play the way you want them to. Applies to all offenses

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